In this week’s sedra we witness how Avraham and Sarah ran their home, and how they treated guests, as with the famous opening scene of Vayeira.
Three strangers appear in the heat of the day, and Avraham and Sarah hurry to serve them. While Avraham promises a little bread and water, he and Sarah deliver much. They serve diary delights and a BBQ–quite a feast for their guests who eat in comfort under the shade of an oak tree. When Avraham first begins preparations, an unusual letter appears:
וְאֶל-הַבָּקָר, רָץ אַבְרָהָם; וַיִּקַּח בֶּן-בָּקָר רַךְ וָטוֹב, וַיִּתֵּן אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וַיְמַהֵר, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתוֹ.
And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hastened to dress it. (Gen. 18:7)
In the phrase אֶל-הַבָּקָר (“to the herd”) there is an unusual letter ק (kuf) in the word בָּקָר, (bakar) meaning ‘calf’. This letter is crowned with three tagin (crownlets) rather than the usual single tag.
According to the ancient Sefer Tagin, the letter ק of אֶל-הַבָּקָר is one of 185 in the Torah which are crowned with three tagin.
Scholars have identified several approaches on how to interpret an unusual letter, and in this case, this thrice-crowned ק is interpreted numerically. The Baal HaTurim writes
According to scribal tradition, there are three tagin on the ק in the word בָּקָר, cattle, to indicate that Avraham took three calves. Moreover, in the merit of Avraham’s hospitality, he was granted a son when he was 100 years old.
The Baal HaTurim is drawing on the fact that the numerical value of the letter ק is 100, and that the reward for the exceptional generosity of preparing and serving three entire calves to three strangers (especially when he was in pain after his circumcision, and in the heat of the day, no less), was that he was finally granted a son.
There is a marvelous source in the Talmud, Shabbat 104a, where the teaching of children on the meaning of the Aleph-Bet is recorded, and where the Baal HaTurim’s comment is reinforced:
אמרי ליה רבנן לרבי יהושע בן לוי אתו דרדקי האידנא לבי מדרשא ואמרו מילי דאפילו בימי יהושע בן נון לא איתמר כוותייהו אלף בית אלף בינה גימל דלת גמול דלים מאי טעמא פשוטה כרעיה דגימל לגבי דלת שכן דרכו של גומל חסדים לרוץ אחר דלים
“The Sages said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: Young students came today to the study hall and said things the likes of which were not said even in the days of Joshua bin Nun. These children who only knew the Hebrew alphabet interpreted the letters homiletically.
Alef beit means learn [elaf] the wisdom [bina] of the Torah.
Gimmel dalet means give to the poor [gemol dalim]. Why is the leg of the gimmel extended toward the dalet? Because it is the manner of one who runs to bestow loving-kindness to pursue the poor.”
Through this source we learn that the number 3 is itself connected with generosity and kindness by way of its letter equivalent, ג (gimmel). Avraham personifies the gimmel. The Torah tells us that just as the leg of the gimmel is extended towards the dalet, as if running to help it, Avraham runs to greet his guests and runs to prepare the three calves for their meal.
This source also connects the kuf to a crown:
הו זה שמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא זח טי כל ואם אתה עושה כן הקדוש ברוך הוא זן אותך וחן אותך ומטיב לך ונותן לך ירושה וקושר לך כתר לעולם הבא
“The children continued to interpret the letters.
Heh vav: That is the principal name of the Holy One, Blessed be He.
Zayin ḥet, tet yod, kaf lamed: And if you do so, the Holy One, Blessed be He, feeds [zan] you, and shows you favor [ḥan], and bestows goodness [meitiv] upon you, and gives you an inheritance [yerusha], and ties a crown [keter] for you in the World to Come [la’olam haba].”
If one behaves as a gimmel, running to do acts of loving kindness, then the reward includes an inheritance, which in Avraham and Sarah’s case was their son, Itzhak. It also includes a crown, and this crown is tied on, קושר, through the letter ק.
Kabbalistically, Avraham represents the attribute of Chesed, loving-kindness. Much of the parsha attests to this. He stood up for the forsaken, gave much to those who had little. He haggled with G!d in an attempt to spare the people of Sodom, even though they were as cruel to guests as he was generous, as evidenced by how an angry mob appeared at Lot’s door when he took in two strangers.
For those of us who are not yet as generous as Avraham, the children in the Talmud teach us another lesson with the crowned kuf:
הוא אין אני יכול להסתכל ברשע ומאי טעמא מהדרה תגיה דקוף לגבי ריש אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא אם חוזר בו אני קושר לו כתר כמותי ומאי טעמא כרעיה דקוף תלויה דאי הדר ביה ליעייל
“The children continued:
…The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: If the wicked person repents his evil ways I will tie a crown for him like My own. And why is the leg of the kuf suspended and not connected to the roof of the letter? Because if the wicked person repents he can enter through this opening if he so desires.”
The letter kuf leaves an opening for an ungenerous person to learn generosity- the way is always open.
And if one is able to be like Avraham and Sarah – to open oneself and one’s home in order to leave space for others, as the letter kuf does, G!d ties crowns of kindness to the legacy of the generous in this world and in the next.